The extraordinary Gannibal was the African great-grandfather of Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet, who spoke proudly of his own inherited "blackamoor profile". In his elegantly written new biography, Hugh Barnes suggests Gannibal was born in Chad, taken as a slave to Constantinople, and purchased in 1704, aged seven or eight, by Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. While still a teenager, Gannibal was writing the tsar's letters, working on encryption for secret messages, and helping to plan military campaigns. As an adult he rose to the top of the Russian army. Gannibal also read Racine, Corneille and Moliere, and was, in Paris, the friend of Montesquieu, Diderot and Voltaire, who called him "the dark star of the Enlightenment". Yet this was less than a century after France had established its slave colonies in the West Indies, and Voltaire also said that the intelligence of black people was "far inferior", while Montesquieu, equivocating about slavery, said it was sometimes "founded on natural reason". How did Gannibal manage to surmount 18th-century attitudes to slavery and to Africans?
His story has intrigued and defeated other authors. Pushkin himself wrote an unfinished historical romance called The Negro of Peter the Great, and began by praising his great-grandfather's "culture and natural intelligence" - but his plot foundered when he came to describe Gannibal's rejection by Natasha, a white Russian aristocrat. After overhearing plans to marry her off to "that black devil", Natasha lies in a swoon for two weeks. Gannibal's friend Korsakov, warning him off marriage, alludes to his "flat nose, thick lips and fuzzy hair". Then the story breaks off. Pushkin's translator and editor Vladimir Nabokov included a 50-page excursus on the current state of knowledge about "Abram Gannibal", which suddenly explodes into an astonishing attack: Gannibal was "a sour, grovelling, crotchety, timid, ambitious and cruel person: a good military engineer, perhaps, but humanistically a nonentity". Neither Pushkin nor Nabokov, it seems, found Gannibal easy to write about.
Hugh Barnes also deals at length with "facts" that turn to dust as he pursues his subject, now in an unheated Russian library where all the readers shiver in hats, coats and scarves, now in the no-go zone between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The biography by Gannibal's son-in-law Rotkirkh is full of myths, including the idea, which has become a truism, that Gannibal was Ethiopian. The black Beninois scholar Dieudonne Gnammankou wryly claims this was because Russians think "Ethiopians are practically white". Barnes comes down on Gnammankou's side, placing Gannibal's birth firmly in equatorial Africa, in sub-Saharan Chad.
After the necessary demolition work (not always an easy read), Barnes's book takes off into gripping narrative. Why was Gannibal taken as a slave to Constantinople? A powerful African family may have had too many potential heirs for comfort. Having been bought by the Turkish sultan, Gannibal was co-opted into an even more grisly system, becoming page to Sultan Mustafa's younger brother Ahmed, who was imprisoned in a cage for life to curtail his ambitions to the throne. Gannibal was learning lessons that later helped him survive the rapidly shifting alliances at his next destination, the Russian court.
Peter the Great was the key to Gannibal's success. Six feet seven inches tall, Peter was an eccentric moderniser who wan- ted "new men" at court. Gifted young Gannibal strikingly disproved what was, in Peter's words, "that odious prejudice which assigns to the Negro race a reputation of intellectual and moral inferiority". Peter became Gannibal's godfather and made him an intimate. Once, the young African boy shrieked out in fright, believing his entrails were coming out; Peter the Great plucked from his behind a large worm. As a teenager, Gannibal slept in the tsar's bedroom and acted as his secretary while learning science and mathematics; a fluent linguist, he accompanied Peter on his unsuccessful empire-building mission to Paris, staying behind to educate himself when Peter went home.
On his eventual return to Russia, Gannibal had to survive the blow of Peter's death and a rapid succession of different rulers (by the end of his life he had served under half a dozen tsars or tsarinas). He wrote a six-inch-thick textbook on Geometry and Fortification, and became chief military engineer to the Russian army. He also worked on a "secret howitzer" that paved the way for the first rockets, and helped design the system of canals finally built by Joseph Stalin.
How did he survive demotion and exile to Siberia, and rise to ever higher military office? Barnes analyses the way in which lethal infighting among home-grown aristocratic families made 18th-century Russia unusually eager to admit foreigners to power. The 19th-century military expert Christoph von Manstein claimed that "the soldiers repose more confidence in strangers than in officers of their own nation". Gannibal scored doubly as both African and Russian, Peter's adopted "son". But as Gannibal fathered a family of 11 children with a Swedish/German wife, Christina-Regina von Schoberg, the mixed-race family aroused hostility among conservative Russians: Gannibal said he suffered "insults and offences".
Gannibal's life came full circle when in 1742 he was granted, by Tsarina Elizabeth, 6,000 acres of woodland and hundreds of serfs. He decided to rent out his estate to a powerful German aristocrat, making a proviso that surely harked back to his own enslaved childhood: "The present contract is . . . void if . . . the peasants . . . are mistreated in any way." When two peasants complained, he brought a successful lawsuit against the German, "one of the first in Russian legal history", according to Barnes, "to enshrine peasants' rights in common law". Unfortunately Gannibal also made an enemy of the new German district governor, and when the latter's nephew succeeded the tsarina, becoming Peter III, Gannibal was despatched to rural retirement, where he died.
Peter the Great's belief in racial equality had been vindicated dramatically, however, as had Russians' willingness to benefit from "alien" talent. Both Gannibal and Pushkin, despite the poet's mostly white antecedents, have become stars in the constellation of black history. Gannibal's fortifications were still in place to thwart the advance of the Nazi armies on St Petersburg two centuries later, and his granddaughter Nadezhda gave birth to the writer revered as the founder of modern Russian literature.
Maggie Gee's new novel, My Cleaner, is published at the end of this month by Saqi Books